• The view from the cockpit of an Australian F/A-18A Hornet on operations in the Middle East.
    The view from the cockpit of an Australian F/A-18A Hornet on operations in the Middle East. Defence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has defeated chess grandmasters, Go champions, professional poker players, and now world-class human experts in the online strategy games Dota 2 and StarCraft II. No AI currently exists, however, that can out-duel a human strapped into a fighter jet in a high-speed, high-G dogfight.

As modern warfare evolves to incorporate more human-machine teaming, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking to automate air-to-air combat, enabling reaction times at machine speeds and freeing pilots to concentrate on the larger air battle.

According to DARPA, turning aerial dogfighting over to AI is less about dogfighting and more about giving pilots the confidence that AI and automation can handle a high-end fight. As soon as new human fighter pilots learn to take-off, navigate and land, they are taught aerial combat manoeuvres. To accelerate the transformation of pilots from aircraft operators to mission battle commanders — who can entrust dynamic air combat tasks to unmanned, semi-autonomous airborne assets from the cockpit — the AI must first prove it can handle the basics.

To pursue this vision, the agency created the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program to increase warfighter trust in autonomous combat technology by using human-machine collaborative dogfighting as its initial challenge scenario.

“Being able to trust autonomy is critical as we move toward a future of warfare involving manned platforms fighting alongside unmanned systems,” USAF LTCOL Dan Javorsek, ACE program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said. “We envision a future in which AI handles the split-second manoeuvring during within-visual-range dogfights, keeping pilots safer and more effective as they orchestrate large numbers of unmanned systems into a web of overwhelming combat effects.”

ACE is one of several STO programs designed to enable DARPA’s “mosaic warfare” vision, which shifts warfighting concepts away from a primary emphasis on highly capable manned systems — with their high costs and lengthy development timelines — to a mix of manned and less-expensive unmanned systems that can be rapidly developed, fielded, and upgraded with the latest technology to address changing threats.

Linking together manned aircraft with significantly cheaper unmanned systems creates a “mosaic” where the individual “pieces” can easily be recomposed to create different effects or quickly replaced if destroyed.

The ACE program will train AI in the rules of aerial dogfighting similar to how new fighter pilots are taught, starting with basic fighter manoeuvres in simple, one-on-one scenarios. Whilst highly nonlinear in behaviour, dogfights have a clearly defined objective, measureable outcome and inherent physical limitations, providing a good test case for advanced tactical automation.

 The AI performance expansion will be closely monitored by fighter instructor pilots in the autonomous aircraft, which will help co-evolve tactics with the technology.

“Only after human pilots are confident that the AI algorithms are trustworthy in handling bounded, transparent and predictable behaviours will the aerial engagement scenarios increase in difficulty and realism,” LTCOL Javorsek said. “Following virtual testing, we plan to demonstrate the dogfighting algorithms on sub-scale aircraft leading ultimately to live, full-scale manned-unmanned team dogfighting with operationally representative aircraft.”

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